The Story of IOTA Designer Planters Australia

iota-plantersI opened a shop in Noosa (not one of my better ideas) for Gardenware in 2008. Up until then, Gardenware had focused on very high end and hard to find tools and garden products for the home garden enthusiast. The niche was small but we had exclusivity on several brands and being mail order we had the whole of Australia as our market.

With a physical shop, I was relying on customers within a certain geographic radius. Products as niche as Gardenware’s just weren’t suitable for that, so I had to broaden my product mix. Broadening our offer to encompass landscape products seemed a logical transition. I thought we could appeal to garden lovers that didn’t want to do the work themselves.

The First Container Purchased

I discovered IOTA planters from the UK and bought a container at the beginning of 2008. The more we got into the market for exclusive planters, the more I realised that the target markets of Gardenware and IOTA couldn’t be more different.

Mark Chessell, managing director of IOTA, suggested a franchise agreement. Under it, I could trade under the name IOTA Australia. I could then leverage the international brand and use all the marketing and brand assets they had in the UK. Assets like; photos, case studies, catalogue templates etc.

I was thrilled with his proposal and jumped on the opportunity straight away. It enabled me to build a brand that already had a strong platform. We were able to close large commercial sales that we may have missed out on if we didn’t have this international reputation.

Global Financial Crisis

It was tough going in the early days, the GFC hit a few months after we launched and my shop in Noosa had real problems. Most of the problems were related to the lack of foot traffic and our inability, or managements’, to turn that around. Since then the whole centre has closed down.

We gave up on the retail idea in Noosa and re-branded the shop to IOTA. Since there was no foot traffic, I converted the shop into to my office and showroom. While that was much better, as soon as I had the opportunity to get out of my lease, I took it and moved the entire operation to my home town in AMAMOOR.

I leased some rural land off a neighbour and built some warehouse space out of shipping containers and other second hand materials and reduced our overheads by over half. I could now sleep a lot better at night.

Change to a Low overhead Business Model

That was in early 2010 and continued with this low overhead model for the next few years. Getting inspiration from The-E-Myth-Revisited I was able to develop operational procedures. From packing orders and shipping to marketing.

The main problem with warehousing out in the bush was the cost of freight. Our fixed costs were down, but our variable costs were high. I was also concerned with the reputation of IOTA and the public perception of warehousing in such a way with no real showroom. While profitable, our growth had slowed and I felt we would plateau without increasing our profile.

By mid 2012 we had the turnover to justify a warehouse and showroom in Brisbane. The savings in freight would largely offset the rent. The additional sales generated by having a showroom should also increase sales.

Growing Pains – New Warehouse

I chose the Redcliffe peninsula for personal as well as business reasons. On the business side, the rent was much cheaper than Brisbane while still within the Q1 freight circumference (i.e. our freight rates were the same as Brisbane). There was little competition for pots on the north side and I estimated it wasn’t too far for people to come from Brisbane when they found us on the web.

On the personal side, it was closer to home. There was also less traffic in Redcliffe than Brisbane, and I loved the area particularly the beach. I walk along the boardwalk there most afternoons and I consider it Brisbane’s best kept secret. Similar geography in Sydney or Melbourne would be in high demand.

Overnight Success After 5 Years

The move to Clontarf was one of my better ideas. All my assumptions have proven accurate (which is rare). The walk-in sales and savings in freight more than offset the additional expenses. People are also prepared to travel from all over Brisbane and the biggest one is that national sales have increased and IOTA’s growth started to climb again.

This, in combination with the work I have put in to creating systems and processes has made IOTA Australia a profitable and manageable entity. I run IOTA myself and have the help of a few casual contractors to help with the heavy lifting, cleaning and yard maintenance.

While I have to be present, since it is a showroom, my direct involvement on IOTA averages less than 10 hours per week. I spend most my time in the showroom office working on my other business interests.

Preparing to Sell IOTA?

I am ready for a change. I have lost the motivation for IOTA that I once had. While that is ok in the short term and I am not neglecting anything, I am no longer looking out for new opportunities with the passion I once had. I have become comfortable with IOTA as it is and I am happy to keep the status quo. This will inhibit the growth of IOTA in the long term. Since I recognise this decline in my personal motivation for IOTA I believe it is best to move on eventually.

Part of the reason for my desire to move on is my passion for web design and development. This has always been the case since my first attempts at websites back when I started Gardenware in 2003. It’s one of the few things in my work life where I get completely obsessed and lose track of time. I love it and realise developing solutions for websites is a passion and what I want to pursue in more depth.

New Business Path

I get a lot of compliments on the IOTA website And while I take great pride in it I realise I have over-capitalised on the IOTA web site. At least a lot of it was my own time, but the reality is I spent so much time on it because I was completely obsessed and enjoyed the process so much. Looking back, I think my time could have been better spent marketing and building relationships with potential clients.

But this networking and sales is not my strong point. Instead, I have decided to focus on what is and what I enjoy, and that’s building and maintaining websites and digital strategy.

The other reason for selling IOTA is that I can. It has been a tough road since start up and IOTA is now in a place that is profitable and doesn’t require my full attention. I feel like I have all my ducks in a row and it’s the first time I have felt like I am in a position to sell.

Think I’ll Stick Around For Another Year

On the other hand I am in no great rush. IOTA is pretty smooth sailing for me now and allows me the time to pursue my new business interests and career change. Without me doing anything extra, I expect 10-15% natural growth year on year. So if I can’t get the price I want for IOTA it is only going up in value while I wait.

I set a deadline for the end of the Australian financial year, June 30 2015, to put IOTA on the market. I have shared parts of this story to friends over the last 6 months and they all look at me like I am an idiot when I say I want to sell. “You mean you have a profitable business that takes you less than 10 hours a week and you want to sell it”. I get their point. So I have decided to stick around for another year and re-assess if I will sell in 2016.

Why Business Objectives Are The Critical First Step to Website Design

hiking-in-snowToo often companies consider their website as an after-thought. They try and bolt on their website to their existing marketing as a separate entity. But then they get disgruntled when the web site is not the success they hoped for

The reason the website does not perform to expectations is often because of a lack of planning. And there are tough questions that they may not have answers for right away.

This article will explain some of the reasons why identifying and documenting your business objectives at the beginning of any website design/re-design project is essential. It will also explore some of the more common examples as case scenarios.

Start with Why. Why do you have a website in the first place?

Often the answer is “Because everyone does” or “We need to be found on Google.”

If the answer to why you want a website is not as sexy, or even professional, as you think it should be, get it down on paper anyway. Then ask why again, and again, and again.

For example, a common reason to want a website is to be found on Google. Why is this important?

  • So you can have more leads.

Why do you want more leads?

  • Because we want to be more selective about the work we take on

Why do you want to be more selective about the work we take on?

  • Because we are sick of dealing with low budget projects.


  • Because we want to do more meaningful and exciting work and make a difference.

So we can see here that what started as wanting to be found on Google ended up a much clearer picture of the heart of the business.

This is a simplified example and you may have a number of business objectives. Those objectives may include: increasing profits, getting better clients, getting better projects, growing to a size you can employ more people, or scaling down so you can work less but with the same level of profit.

Whatever these objectives are they are critical to be written down on paper and exposed to the light of day.

You don’t know what you don’t know

If you can get down exactly what you do know then you can start a dialogue with others that may have some insights that you don’t.

For example, going back to our “wanting to be found on Google” objective, the reality is that ranking high on organic search results (the results you don’t pay Google for) for competitive keywords is a huge project. It requires a large budget and a long time to get results.

In this example we are putting the solution of being found on Google before the problem of needing more sales. The objective is to get higher profits, better clients, better projects, etc. Unless there is a vanity objective for ranking high on Google search, who cares where you rank on Google? The important thing is you achieve your sales objectives.

And there may be a multitude of other ways to achieve these objectives that will bring a much quicker return on investment. But until you get your objectives documented in a website strategy no one is capable to fully assist you with their expertise.

You don’t need all the answers

Documenting your business objectives does not require you to have all the answers on how to achieve them. In fact it would be useful to pretend (just for a few minutes) that you don’t have all the answers.

What business objectives do you “suspect” could be solved by a website strategy?

What are your business objectives that you don’t think can be solved by a website strategy? (You might be surprised)

What specific reasons do you have for owning a website?

Getting back to why you want a website in the first place, I will throw a few brainstorming ideas out there for you.

  • A place to refer clients to view your portfolio
  • Generate leads
  • Actively convert sales
  • Build an audience
  • Show your expertise in a specific niche
  • Documentation resource for current clients
  • Documentation resource for potential clients
  • Guide potential clients through a sales funnel.

What would life look like if you didn’t have a website?

For some, they might not be able to imagine life without a website. It is crucial to their business model. For others a website may be “nice to have”. If you have a small niche and/or specialise in large contracts that are mostly by referral from the same sources then a website might not be for you. In any case, it is worth the question, if for nothing else but to rate the importance of a website to your company. This importance should be proportional to the investment you make on your website strategy.

What % of leads are generated from your website?

What % of income is generated from the site?

Your answers are more than likely based on a guess. None the less it is still important to get you thinking of the value of your website to your company.

Important is the difference between % of leads and % of revenue. If they are markedly different it is worth looking at why. Say you have 50% of your leads come from your website, but only 25% of revenue then this reflects a low conversion rate. We need to address how the branding and positioning are failing so as to produce low quality leads.

If improvements were made to your website, what increase in these percentages could you expect?

If you have identified a number of holes in your strategy then you may feel there is room for improvement. This is only a guess on your behalf, but it’s an educated guess based on your intimate knowledge of your business and target market.

What does a successful website look like to you?

Previously I said you only had to pretend you didn’t have all the answers for a few minutes. Well that time is up and you can go back to what you think is possible and reasonable. Just keep in mind you may be off the mark in a few areas.

What % of income is generated from the site?

Compare yourself to a home owner designing their dream home. They have a lot of information about their lifestyle and needs and may be well researched in the architecture they are interested in. Their input is invaluable but will not always be technically correct and an architect will be able to steer them to achieve their goals.

Imagine you are this client and express your needs clearly, and with an open mind. Your input will be an invaluable resource to the web professional that sees it.

Some scenarios to get you thinking

Do you just want a simple brochure website that simply presents your business in a professional and accurate way? There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to make this clear from the beginning. There is no use investing in functionality that you will never use.

Or do you want something that acts as an informational resource that you can refer clients to? If so, do you have these resources ready to go? If not they are going to take time or money to create, and probably both. Do you have the budget for this and what sort of resources would your leads and customers find interesting and useful?

Do you want to go one step further and engage in a dialogue that your website is the hub for creating interesting blog posts that your target market will comment on and generate a series of conversations?

Or do you want to go all out and follow the media approach, where your company becomes a media producer. This has been very successful for a number of companies, most famously Gary Vaynerchuk from Wine Libraries TV.

I hope I have given you enough ideas without overwhelming you. All this is in vain if you don’t take action and dedicate 10 minutes to identifying the top 3 business objectives for your site.

My Experiences as a Design Hacker. Now There’s a Name For It

coyboyI am a business owner first, and although I have been building websites since 2000 I had also been a hacker. Get a business idea, quickly build it myself, and get it in front of my market.

If I got a bit of traction and some sales I would upgrade certain parts. I had some friends that were designers and got their input. I was able to keep everything together with rubber bands and build a solid enough business.

“Some” of what I considered to be a lack of professionalism, or at least cowboy methods, I now see promoted as Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Agile Design

Traditional Web Design Workflows and Where They Failed Me.

In 2009 I discovered Elance and thought all my problems were solved. “Designers for $10 per hour, now I can afford some real designers!” I contracted this Indian girl and approved her for 10 hours to redesign the home page of a site I was managing.

She eagerly got to work and presented me with a link to a webpage, as I went to browse the web page none of the links worked. I then realised that it wasn’t really a web page, but just one big image in a browser. This is odd I thought, “Why go through all that work of creating a mock up website in photoshop that was just going to be copied in html and css, etc?”

I then came to realise that this was the best practice design process, and I figured, “well if that’s what smarter minds than me have decided that is the best way, then who am I to argue”.

I decided to try and embrace this design process, and I must admit it had some real benefits. I was familiar with photoshop, so I was able to get the source doc off her (psd). I was able to take a much more granular look at the design than I was used to after working directly in the browser all those years.

Still not convinced it was the most efficient method duplicating it in 2 file formats; I did recognise that design process was less inhibited by the technical restrictions of html and css. Build it in Photoshop the way you wanted and worry about how you will get it to work in the browser later. I approved the psd with a few changes and she created the html version for me and delivered for a successful project.

Iterative Design is Human Nature

I then changed my mind a week later and hacked the html and css to the way I wanted it. You see it took me a week to digest and for my own internal design process to take shape. There were usability and business case issues that I wasn’t able to conceive when the design was just an image.

I lacked the conceptual thinking necessary to visualize all the elements that were necessary for this design process. It was in part my lack of design experience, but I had managed this site for a long time. And I was more familiar, and understood the business and its’ customers more than anyone.

My product knowledge came from years of working in the trenches in this business. So no matter how experienced in design any contractor was they were not going to be able to have the same insights into that business that I could.

And if I weren’t able to list all the elements needed then and there in the initial mock up stage, I’ll have to add it later into the html and css, or do the whole process again of psd -> html. Etc.

I Don’t Think it Was Because I am an Idiot

I consider myself intelligent and a good strategist. So if I wasn’t able to conceptualise what the website needed to offer it’s audience in one sitting then it’s highly likely that most business owners will have the same issue. The point is, solutions don’t come from a one-hour meeting, they take time to develop.

This is only talking about what we know. The solutions that we don’t yet know, that we need to test and record the behaviour of our users, is even larger in scope and complexity.

At the time, around 2009, I didn’t recognise this yet and just believed it was my lack of experience. And I didn’t feel I was in a position to challenge the accepted best practice.

Off the Shelf Themes vs Waterfall Custom Design.

A couple of years later we decided it was time to upscale the platform on my site and chose the ecommerce platform Magento. I bought a premium (paid) theme and customised it to my brand. Before long the complexities of Magento made me reach out to a developer. Finding a reliable Magento developer in my price range is a whole blog post on it’s own. Suffice to say after 6 long months I finally found Arif from India that I could both afford and work with.

The process of customising the new theme was pretty disorganised and I micromanaged the whole thing without enough knowledge to do so. If I wanted to change something I would contract a freelance designer, or often a couple to do the same task. I could then pick which one I liked best (the joys of Elance pricing) and then pass to Arif and get him to implement. Despite my unstructured approach the project was a success and achieved all the goals we wanted within budget.

A More Professional Approach

It was time to re-build my other site. I had recognised how far my process was from the industry standard and thought I should try and behave a bit more like a professional. There were also a number of issues and bugs we had to overcome using the pre-built theme, and the project manager from Arif’s firm suggested I build this new site from scratch using their process which I agreed to.

As expected I was presented with some mock up images for approval, which looked fine to me. Once I approved, they said they would pass it onto their html expert to convert the image into a static html and css file. It would then be passed on to my developer Arif to integrate into the Magento Content Management System (CMS) we were using.

I was a little bit sceptical at all these steps, but soon found out that this was the industry standard “waterfall” approach. And it was the way grownups must do it.

Or was it?

I was happy enough with the end design, but it went over budget and a lot of the original design was scrapped. It had to be redone either in the browser or if more complex changes were needed, we updated the original psd and then integrated into the site.

What I found was that when I just gave Arif a quick mockup or even just explained what I wanted, he was able to integrate straight into the site without any help from the photoshop or the html expert cutting the process down by half.

I was starting to think these industry best practices were great. Great at creating more jobs for agencies and larger bills for clients. It was then I started to research and find a lot of information on “agile design process” and of course read “The Lean Startup”

When I started my own agency, I decided to make it my mission to create a design process that was organised and professional in approach. But also reduce the waste I saw in the “waterfall method”.

I wanted to create a design process that was more in tune with human nature and embraced the iterative and constant improvement nature in humans. A design process that made allowances for business owners not being able to conceptualise the entire process in the first round of revisions.

You can see this in a case study on how we carried this out in practice

Custom vs Premium Themes – The Debate

custom-carCustom vs premium themes is a hotly debated topic and my opinion is a little bit heretical within the upper echelons of the web design community. I am a big fan of premium pre built themes.

In my own experience on using both custom and premium pre built themes, I felt that while there were some issue with the pre-built themes, there was nowhere near as many with the custom themes. And the cost of customising the pre-built themes was also much less.

I believe there are business cases for custom themes, but would be hesitant for projects under $50k. Certain brands need uniqueness and Nike’s invention of parallax scrolling created a lot of buzz in the industry. But they had the budget for this design differentiation. I can also see a business case for SAAS platforms or websites where the website is the business. We use Saasu for our accounting and mailchimp for newsletters, to name just 2, and I can see that they need more granular control and a custom solution. is an example of a business case for a custom site where it is very interactive and you need to be able to create ads for Facebook. I challenge this and find Adroll infuriating to use. It presents a whole new learning curve just to do some simple tasks. If the Adroll interface was almost identical to Adwords, which I am already familiar with, I would be much happier. Even if the Adroll interface was better than Adwords, it’s still an extra thing to learn.

How many customers gave up that would have been able to achieve their campaign if the interface had been more like Adwords, which they were already familiar with?

I’m not suggesting Adroll use a premium theme. What I suggest is that they don’t try and re-invent the wheel and replicate as close to possible the advertising platform that most people are familiar with, i.eAdwords.

Better Ways to Differentiate than Through Custom Themes

For most businesses, there are so many ways to differentiate their business such as service or product offer, guarantee, customer service, ethical or environmental position, quality, price etc. etc.

Web design, while crucial to convey how the business differentiates itself, is way down on the list to the extent that a custom design is required.

Should all website look the same? Maybe. As a web user, it would make my life a lot easier if sites were more standard and similar.

On the other side of the coin I do appreciate good design, but not the bold changes. It’s the subtle differences that make my life easier. It’s the clever combination of nice and easy-to-read fonts, the correct use of white space that guides my eye to the next chunk of information, the intricate mathematics of the spacing between elements, and the size of those elements and relationship to each other.

In good, pre-built themes at least half of this is already done and they are generic enough that the user is not left thinking. “This is pretty, but how the hell do I get what I want done and get out of here?”

Perhaps the most important thing for the brand is the emotional response the user has to the website design and if that is in harmony with the way they perceive the brand. Again, some clever design on top of an existing framework (theme) instead of a complete custom will achieve this goal.

The website is the vehicle not the offer.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be if a sales manager said he needed custom cars for his sales force to differentiate the brand. That he proposed to go to one of the car manufactures and get a quote for a new car with a whole new shape. Even car manufactures use the same “framework” across a range of their own brands. Although I’m not sure I agree with a Falcon and Jaguar having the same chassis.

You would tell your sales manager, “I understand this is important to you, and I think the sales fleet should be differentiated and that will give us a strong brand presence. So why don’t we get a custom colour, or even a pattern in the paintwork, and some branding with our logo.”

You can do a lot more customisation than this building a website from a pre-built theme. In fact you can make two different websites from the same theme and they will look far different than a Falcon and a Jaguar when compared.

Resistance from Designers to Premium themes

One of the recurring complaints about pre-made themes from designers is that they like to work on code they have written themselves. Pre-built themes actually take them longer to work on. Since good developers charge upwards of $100 per hour, that makes a pretty good business case, but let’s look a bit deeper.

What if your designer gets hit by a bus? Even if they used really good code you’re still left with a code that another designer has to learn. Or they need to completely re-build to their own standards and preferences. If your designer was prepared to build on a pre-built theme, then it would be much easier to replace them if needed. A pre-built theme was made for use by many developers and in almost all cases of “quality” themes it will be easy for a new designer to come in and take over someone’s custom theme.

I also reject that it takes them longer to work on a pre-built theme. Maybe if you decide to customise the theme beyond what it is meant for then I can see it taking longer, but that shouldn’t happen in the first place. Why does the design need to be so different from the solutions that are already available? Those solutions are already tried and tested by thousands of other website owners.

Or if you do hit that wall then you can try another theme that will meet your needs. It does take a bit of forward thinking, but if you use a popular framework like Genesis or Storefront and stick to some rules, then it shouldn’t be too hard to swap over to another child theme on those frameworks if needed.

Pricing Decisions – Should Your Online Store Offer Wholesale?

The Lure of Wholesale Markets

For an online store it can be a competitive advantage to create a brand yourself. In this scenario, more often than not the idea of wholesaling, selling to retail stores, gets put on the table.

I have had only limited experience with selling products under my own brand, but in most cases the startup cost is significant. The promise of large revenues from wholesale can be appealing.

I have had more experience with established brands in both exclusive and non-exclusive deals. For exclusive deals where they agree not to supply anyone else in your territory (in my case Australia). There is usually something you need to give back to get this exclusivity in the way of purchasing commitments. If you can’t buy enough stock then it is not in their interest to refuse supply to other would-be distributors.

For non exclusive deals, there is may still be a  motivation to sell as much as you can to receive discounts based on quantity purchased. Or the potential – if you can sell enough of their products – to nail down an exclusive agreement.

The Tough Reality of Wholesale Markets

I have had varied success selling products to re-sellers, and have ended up using wholesale accounts for objectives other than profit.

The times I have had an exclusive deal on a brand, then wholesale has had some benefit in market penetration and exposure, i.e, getting the brand out in the marketplace and known.

Wholesale has helped with increasing turnover and meeting supply commitments, and increasing stock turns. Increasing stock turns or inventory turnover helps with cash flow. Keep in mind that slow paying retailers can reverse this benefit quickly, so a strict 30 day or tighter terms are needed.

For one of my businesses, IOTA Designer Planters, the wholesaling of garden pots to garden centers made pricing difficult. The retailers generally want a 100% markup and then I needed my own 50-100% markup. This meant I needed to set a recommended retail price (RRP) above what I thought was optimal. Price elasticity of demand

In this situation, everyone lost as the RRP was too high to sell enough volume to optimize profits. Once I realized this, I slowly closed all my wholesale accounts except two. These were high the high profile Garden centers where I was meeting my non-profit objectives of increased turnover and exposure.

Alternatives to Wholesale

There are other pricing models that don’t require as large a discount as wholesaling to retailers.

Most of these are business to business (B2B), like trade pricing and B2B direct. But if your products are consumer only then you can look at bulk discount pricing.

Trade Pricing

This is known as price differentiation or discrimination and is an effective part of B2B transactions. I loosely call these wholesale, but only because it makes the customer feel like they are getting the best price. In reality they are not offering the exposure that “real” wholesale accounts do so can’t justify the same discount. Also they are not reselling it in the same way a retailer would so they don’t need anywhere near the margins. Generally, 15-25% is a win for a consultant or contractor buying on behalf of their client.

B2B Direct

This includes sales to businesses, corporations, governments and councils. These can often be the most lucrative since they are using the product themselves and there is no one adding any margin. They are also conservative in their procurement so will often be happier to pay slightly more to a supplier they trust. Orders can also be of good size, where you will have your next decision on what discount to offer for bulk purchases.

Bulk Discounts

Again this could loosely be called “wholesale” but unless the quantities are really high, it is unwarranted to give a true wholesale price of 40-50% discount.

Pricing here would be dependent on competition. If it was a generic or mass market product you would have to be more price competitive than if you were the only one to hold that brand.

If you were the only one to hold the brand then it will be less price sensitive, but competition from brands of similar products would have to be taken into account.

Some knowledge of the depth of stock your competitors kept would help. If someone needs 50 widgets by Friday and you know you are the only one that has that many then there is no need to discount too heavily.


There is certainly an appeal to the big numbers that wholesale can generate, but there are alternative models that require a smaller initial investment and much larger margins. For some, exclusive supplier deals wholesaling can be a necessary evil. However, tread with caution as the cost of “sell in” can cripple your business much quicker than not meeting your purchasing commitments.

Keep in mind that your suppliers exporting model has risk, and debt collection is much harder across international borders. If you can build trust with your suppliers they may end up being satisfied with a lower turnover than originally agreed to deal with someone they trust.

Minimum Viable Customer Service Process


When I started Wooassist and was looking at designing the customer service process, I decided that it would be more efficient to wait till we got our first customer, and deal with that customer myself, document how I handled that customer, and make that into a process the team could follow.

I estimated it was going to be a lot less time than creating a fictional client and creating processes around what might or might not happen. I also knew I would find it very hard to create a fictional character and do “mock” work as my heart would not be in it as I knew it was fictional. However, if I had a real live customer that had already paid me and I had real live tasks from them, then the motivation to impress our first client would propel me into a highly motivated state and I could achieve a lot more with less.

Wooassist’s First Customer

As it turned out I had a lot less. I was having breakfast in the international terminal at Denpasar (Bali) airport waiting for my connecting flight when I noticed they had free wi-fi. Flicking through my phone hap-hazardly checking my emails I noticed our first order from the Wooasssit site. “Cool we have our first Wooassist order”.

After a few seconds the excitement wore off and I realized that I had about 30 minutes online before my flight boarded and then I would be offline till the next morning.

Oh well, I had created this business with defined criteria to be able to be run without my input, see Creating a Business Model That Has Good Founder Fit.

It looks like that would be happening earlier than expected and I would be throwing my team in the deep end.

At least I had set up an email template to go out to the customer when they placed an order that would ask them to reply to that email with the tasks they had for us. The new client (I’ll call him Danny for the rest of this article) had not replied to that yet so I got on Skype with my project manager John and explained the situation, where I was, and that I would not be able to manage this client like I had hoped, and it was up to him.

In the next 30 minutes we sent back and forth a few email template examples for the client set-up process and then just 5 minutes before I was due to board Danny replied with the tasks he needed done. Basically, he had built the site himself and there were just a few items left that were too hard for him to figure out and he had sent them to us. They were highly technical and I wasn’t sure we could get a result for him.

Customer Service Process – Not as I Had Planned

satisfied-clientThis was not the business I had in mind when I built Wooassist. Our target market was online store owners that wanted to leverage their time by handing over the mundane and laborious tasks of their site management, not take on the most complex parts of their site that were too hard for them.

In any case, the last thing I wanted to do was tell our first customer that his tasks were just too hard for us.

I got in late that night and decided there was no point checking my mail and I was better of getting a good night sleep and having a look at this with fresh eyes the next day. I went to sleep at peace that either my team had been able to handle his requests or they hadn’t. If they hadn’t, I then had the difficult job of informing him that this is beyond the scope of the service we offer.

Resisting the urge to jump straight into my email the next morning I performed my Morning Routine and then in the correct sequence got to the correspondence between Danny and John. I was thrilled; John had been able to find solutions for everything Danny had asked.

“Phew!” What a relief. Although I was prepared for a “Sorry we don’t do that” scenario, I really wanted our first client to be a success. Over the next few days I refined the processes and email templates that we could use and had John proofread, update, and add to our wiki. We use dokuwiki for our processes.

Luckily Things Rarely Work out as Planned

So my minimum viable customer service process development turned out to be a lot more “minimum” than I had expected and now looking back, I couldn’t have hoped for a better scenario. The way things worked out empowered John to handle any future clients with much more confidence and gave me a renewed confidence in John and the team that we could handle just about anything.

Iterative Process

The new customers we have had since then each brings their own challenges. For each new client we find we need to add or update something in the wiki as our customer service processes are an ever-evolving iterative journey.

One I would never have expected was people choosing not to use the $100 coupon for their first order. We offer $100 off store owners first order, so that they can get started on one our cheapest package for just $19, giving them 6 hours of our time with very little risk.

A few times our customers have chosen not to take up this option so we had to work out what to do, if anything. In the end we decided to offer them 2 hours complimentary as part of their account set-up.

We will continue to iterate to bring clients a better experience and better value by ultimately serving our mission of using our skills to leverage their time so they can better manage their business.

Starting a client business without processes in place and developing them on the fly, reckless or efficient? Let me know you thoughts.

Creating a Business Model that has Good Founder Fit

business-ideaAt close to the age of 40, I have a quality of life and peace of mind that I have never had. My businesses are more profitable then ever and require from me the least amount of effort than ever before.

On the other side of the coin, I am no longer particularly interested in them. I am proud of them and grateful they pay the bills, but I don’t wake up inspired by them. Consequently, I am looking for a change and to start a new business.

I have had time to make many mistakes and a few successes. More importantly, the journey has allowed me to get closer to the truth about my strengths and weaknesses as a business owner. In this post I want to explore how I can use those as criteria to engineer a new business that has a good founder fit, and will keep my interest and enthusiasm

Decisions on Data, Not my Arbitrary Opinion

personality-typesRecently, I took the test at and the result was INTJ – a small, but wonderful segment, of the population. This test reinforced the futuristic and strategy strengths I scored for in the Gallup strengths finder, the dynamo/mechanic personality profile from and High D/C disc profile.

You could say I like personality tests. You could also say I am a little bit self-obsessed. The truth is I like data. I like making decisions and setting up systems and processes based on data, not my arbitrary opinion.

This is not how I created my first businesses. I was young, inexperienced, intensely motivated to start a business and had little, if any, cash flow. I thought my determination would bring me the luck I needed to be a millionaire before the age of 30. As soon as I got the opportunity to start a business, I jumped at the chance and dedicated my life to it.

I don’t have any regrets and I would probably make all the same decisions if I had my time again, but at the stage of my life now, with a couple decades of experience, things are much different.

Gone is the youthful enthusiasm and  it was replaced with a pragmatic data driven decision-making process that will allow me to create a rigid set of criteria to help me shape a business that is right for me.

In Harmony with My Personality and Desired Lifestyle

strengths-and-weaknessesThese criteria are based on my strengths and weaknesses, and likes and dislikes. Often the former will influence the latter. And it is these personality tests and case studies on the personality types I identify with that have affirmed that I don’t need to change so much as embrace the person I am and leverage my attributes for the most effective outcome.


  • Strategic thinking and ability to create processes
  • Management skills, especially remote international workers.
  • Intermediate development, design and writing skills.
  • Introverted, can function effectively for long periods of time on my own.


  • Introversion makes me drained from dealing with people or groups for long periods.
  • Weak at repetitive tasks
  • Weak at spoken word, better at writing than talking.

Identifying these, I gave myself permission to build a business around my strengths rather than trying to improve my weaknesses.

Criteria for a New Business

Leveraging Introversion

Not spending more that 25% of my time dealing with people and the majority of that correspondence to be via written word.

Strong Founder Fit

Even though I was going to be a reserved leader, I still believed I needed authority in the industry or segment I choose. Hence “A Great Business Idea I Discovered Was Not For Me” did not work out.

No Stock On Hand or Physical Warehouse

I was slightly negotiable on this, but after selling physical products for over 10 years and always having cash tied up in stock and the responsibility of warehousing it. I was hoping to avoid this.

100% Bootstrapped

I could comfortably pull about 20k out of my existing business per year to build something new.  That would equate to roughly a 10k start and then a 5k injection, if needed, every 3 months. It is very important for my peace of mind not to over extend myself with this business; if it can’t grow with that sort of capital then it is not suitable.

Day-to-Day Operations will Run without me Within 12 Months.

I get bored very easily and I know that whatever I build needs to be able to run without me for extended periods of time so I can have a break from it. I think this is also just good practice for any business to make it a saleable entity.

Overcoming Obstacles of This Approach

breaking-barriersA lot of the marketing advice I have heard over the last few years involves extroverted activities like:

  1. Establish yourself as an authority in your niche and demonstrating that through speaking engagements, seminars and podcasts.
  2. Get out amongst your industry and network.
  3. Build relationships via social media.

If these were the only avenues to success, I am dead in the water. It is possible I could learn these things, but even then, I don’t think I would ever be as good as people naturally inclined to these activities, and it would be so draining on me that I could possibly only achieve a few hours of work a day. The rest of my business would fall apart.

In some respects, the business I create here will be an experiment in introverted entrepreneurship. I am going to intentionally minimize all those things I am weak in and instead focus on my strengths.

  1. Establish myself as an authority in my niche and demonstrate that through blogs, eBooks and screen casts
  2. Release free helpful products like WordPress plugins and themes and excel spreadsheets and word document templates
  3. Build relationships by promoting others and making them money.

Admitting Limitations

I do actually believe that the first list of more “extroverted” marketing activities are crucial to a growing business and without doing these will limit any new venture I start significantly.

However, I believe it might just be possible to start a business without doing these “social” things in the beginning.

If I can create some reliable and profitable cash flow that is built on systems that are capable of being replicated and scaled then I will have something concrete to attract an extroverted partner that does have these skills to take the business to the next level.

Stay tuned to see what business I develop…..

What are your strengths and weaknesses? What would be your criteria for starting a business?

A Great Business Idea I Discovered Was Not For Me

Business Not For MeI had been an online store-owner for over 10 years and was ready for a change.

I had lost the motivation for my businesses that I once had. While that is ok in the short term and I was not neglecting anything, I was no longer looking out for new opportunities with the passion I once had.

I have become very comfortable with my businesses as they are and are very happy to keep the status quo and that will inhibit the growth long term. Also since I recognize this decline in my personal motivation for them, I believe it is best to move on sooner than later.

Looking for a Change

Part of the reason for my desire to move on is my passion for web design and development. This has always been the case since my first attempts at websites back when I started Gardenware in 2003. It’s one of the few things in my work life where I get completely obsessed and lose track of time. I just love it and realised a business based around developing websites had the most chance of keeping my interest long term.

I get a lot of compliments on the IOTA website ( and while I take great pride in it, I realise I have over-capitalised on it. At least a lot of it was my own time, but the reality is I spent so much time on it because I was completely obsessed and enjoyed the process so much.

Looking back, if I was more inclined I think my time could have been better spent marketing and building relationships with potential clients. But this is not my strong point and I have decided to focus on what is and what I enjoy and that’s building and maintaining websites and digital strategy.

Leveraging Existing Assets

leverageI learnt long ago that it is much easier to sell a new product to a market you already have as customers than to sell to a market that doesn’t know you. With that in mind, I looked at my customer databases and had home gardeners from GardenWare and design build professionals from IOTA.

I figured the design build professionals; architects, builders, landscapers and designers all needed websites and it wouldn’t be too hard to establish myself as an authority in web design and development for this niche. I had been dealing with this market for over 5 years so I felt comfortable making this transition.

I had been researching the web design industry for a good year by now and identified a gap in the market for websites around $1000. Websites below $500 are covered by the hosting companies’ website builder products, pre-made themes, or someone’s nephew.

A site more than $500 but still under $1500 is very hard for a web design business to make a profit from. If I set up systems correctly, I could personally dedicate only 2-3 hours to each site and have my Philippine team handle the rest and have a profitable business.

A passing Interest vs Something You Can do Every Day

I thought I had a winning formula and I still do believe in the model, but just not for me. I was incorrect on a number of counts.

  1. I got no interest for web design services from my existing database.
  2. I found out I had no interest serving this market.

zero-interestThe final straw was when I attempted to start a podcast with an architect friend and having him discuss architecture and society. It had very little interest to me and I realised this cannot be my market. I really like this guy; I just didn’t relate too much about his thoughts on architecture.

I was trying to position myself in the wrong market.

I hear some debate over finding your passion and creating a business out of it versus finding what you are good at and suspect will keep your interest. I am certainly in the second camp, but while I thought I had an interest in architecture it wasn’t enough of an interest to have any real empathy for the industry and it was going to be too hard for me to identify with the problems this market wanted to solve.

Playing with Marbles

When I was in primary school, marbles were big and my mum got a couple of calls from other kids’ parents saying that they thought I was being a bit unfair in my dealings and their child had got the worse end of the deal. I didn’t have to give any marbles back, but I was told to play a bit nicer.

business-marblesI then found a toy shop that had king size tom thumbs at 50% of the school yard market value, so I was able to buy these and exchange them for the biggest marble collection in the whole of the school. Walking to school with an extra of 5kg marbles was the only down side. I was in my element.

My business life hasn’t been that much different really. As Peter Drucker described: “Entrepreneurs, by definition, shift resources from areas of low productivity and yield to areas of higher productivity and yield.”

I always had and most likely always would buy for a dollar and sold for two. They were the people I could truly help, others that did the same. And the area I was best suited to help them was with their website.

Now, the question for you is does your job or business keep your interest?

What market are you best able to serve and what are you best skill sets to serve them?

Time Budget for Competing Objectives and Managing Accountability

time-managementWith all the competing business objectives and the complicated web of businesses I have created for myself, the one thing I can control is how much time I spend on each part of my business. I have been doing this with a time budget for a few months now and it has given me some clarity and focus.

Personal Reserve of Productive Hours for a Time Budget

I have a personal reserve of about 40-50 hours per week, which is what I have discovered to be both the enjoyable and sustainable workload for me.
When I make a time budget of what I want to achieve, it adds up to about 60 hours a week. I can recognize that this is not sustainable, and either reduce my list, or find a way to work smarter so that my involvement in some of these responsibilities is reduced.


Consultant for

This will involve helping Nathalie with sales strategy to maintain and grow the profitability of GardenWare and to assist her to leverage her time better to be able to dedicate more time to her content strategy.

5 hours/wk

Develop Themes and Plugins for Wooassist

Time ManagementThe idea is we will offer free themes and plugins to the Woocommerce store owners and then charge for support if they need additional help.

This is challenging at present because, although I have designed and developed a lot of sites myself, I am new to creating themes and plugins that other people will use where there are a lot more use cases that need to be considered.

I have also done most of the design and code myself and managed the projects a lot closer whereas for this venture to be sustainable, it needs to be scalable, so I am handing over a lot of the work I would normally do myself, to others (that are much better at it than me).

7.5 hours/wk

Blog 2 Articles a Week

This is not a huge feat if I stick to topics I know well and don’t get too caught up in the marketability of my blog posts. Sure, write for an audience, but I have decided to treat the audience like a close friend that I am writing a letter to. In fact it would probably help for each blog post to write Dear ……….. at the beginning of the post.

5 hours/wk

Marketing Wooassist

This is not my favorite job; I would much prefer to build useful themes and plugins for people to use and develop systems so that the customers we do get have an amazing experience and tell their friends how good we are. But in these early days, I need to experiment with a large range of marketing channels to get those first customers.

5 hours/wk

Responsibilities to IOTA Designer Planters

These take me about 10 hours per week. This is unavoidable as it’s not enough hours to hire someone else to do it. I would need to hire someone for 15-20 hours and then I would still need to spend 5-6 hours managing them, so I would only gain 5-6 hours net for a big chunk of my profit.

10 hours/wk

Managing My Team and Miscellaneous Tasks

I have a goal to limit myself to an hour in the morning on this, but it will pop up during the day as well.

10 hours/wk

Personal Training

Personal TrainingAnd finally, I am a lifelong student and try to allocate about 10 hours a week to personal training. Most of this time feels almost like recreation as it’s reading and listening to business books and podcasts, which I love. ¬¬¬

12.5 hours/wk

That adds up to 55 hours, which is on the high side, but like I said only 45 hours will feel like work.

How to Stay Accountable to This Plan?

I have a friend whom I have an accountability session with fortnightly. We both wanted business coaches and found we were well qualified to coach each other, so we have been doing this for about 6 months now.

Recording the hours is something I have tried and failed a few times. Recording my hours in an excel spreadsheet at the end of the day just didn’t stick, and great apps like Rescue Time aren’t able to differentiate correctly between these responsibilities of mine.

The Time Budget Answer for Me was

I found this app after hearing a lot about the benefits of using a pomodoro timer. Kanbanflow is very similar to Trello but has a Pomodoro timer built in. BTW, using the Pomodoro timer has been a complete game changer for my efficiency and effectiveness.
While it was easier to think of these tasks in terms of weekly, monthly was a better way to record them. I set up a Kanban board Called Nick’s Time Budget with columns for each month. I then created cards for each of the categories I had committed to and, to the best of my ability, did all my work for the month in Pomodoro sprints. Any time it wasn’t appropriate to use the timer, or I just plain forgot, it is very easy to update the time manually.

Adjusting Course

Interestingly, half way through the month, I was able to review the Kanban board and recognize where I needed to spend some more time to meet my objectives and where I had done too much or was on track. Just having the board there had a self-correcting effect on me.


I have since created a board for January with the objectives mentioned above.

I have made a few additions in the settings to this board that are working really well for me.


  1. I have added an estimated time which you can see on the other side of the / eg. IOTA has a budget of 40 hours per month and as of the 12th January I have spent 10 hrs 32 mins.
  2. I have allocated which day of the week I will focus on which task. So far this has been surprisingly enjoyable, as I wake up inspired knowing what I will be doing that day. I don’t always stick to it, but having it there provides a nice framework.
  3. I have started to add sub-tasks. You can see the check boxes. I will have to keep an eye on this, because it will become a mess if I have more than three incomplete sub-tasks per card, but so far so good.

Failing at Focus. Oh Well, Embrace it.

I hear a lot about focus on doing one thing and doing it well. I fail at this; I get too bored on one thing and I’m still not sure which basket to put all my eggs in. This may change as I get older and mature, or as one particular area of my businesses becomes noticeably more profitable and enjoyable than the others.

In the meantime, I have decided to accept my multitude of business interests and become really efficient and effective at handling all these in a way that prevents myself from being overwhelmed.

The answer for me has been a time budget. What do you do to keep you on track and accountable for where you spend your efforts?

Morning Routine For Increased Effectiveness and Creativity

I recently picked up a book called “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey. A fascinating account of the daily rituals of famous creative people.

My morning routine is something that I hold dearly and when I was younger, was a discipline that I didn’t always achieve. It was obvious to me that both the quality and enjoyment of my work were affected greatly by whether I had performed my morning routine or not.

daily-rituals-mason-curryThis morning routine has now become habit, not unlike cleaning my teeth first thing in the morning, and I rarely deviate from it. It no longer requires any discipline, in fact I suspect it would take more effort to stray from my morning routine.

It’s an evolving process, as I learn new things and as time changes me. It’s certainly not a recipe for anyone else, but I’m sure there are people that could benefit from applying some of the processes I go through to start my day.

Morning Routine Starts With the birds

I wake up between 5 and 6am. If I get up before 5 I feel too tired come mid morning and after 6, I feel I miss my most productive time of the day.

First, I clean my teeth and sometimes check my phone for emails. Some people are against checking your phone first thing, but for me it only mentally prepares me for the work I will do that day. I don’t actually read any of the emails, just who they are from and the subject line.

I then get my ice-cold water out of the fridge I placed there the night before. I started with ice-cold water because I read in the Four Hour Body  that it burns more calories, but now I just like the taste better.

Stretches and Meditation

I sit on my rug and do a few simple leg stretches until I feel a bit less stiff than when I started. A few days a week, I will also do some stomach crunches and pushups to keep my core strength up and protect my lower back.

I then put a cushion under my bum, lean against my couch cross-legged (lazy man’s meditation pose) and meditate for around 20 minutes. I used to time it, but now I sort of feel when I am done. I don’t follow any particular meditation discipline; I just focus on my breath and say a few prayers in my mind. To be honest, I spend a lot of that 20 minutes thinking, but somehow the thoughts feel different to my usual thoughts and regardless of how terrible a meditator I am, this one discipline has given me peace of mind throughout the rest of my day greater than anything else I have ever done.

morning routine meditation

Coffee and TV

Once my meditation is over, I make coffee and watch 20 minutes of TV with the kids. This combination of coffee and trashy fiction clears my mind and I forget about any responsibilities I have for the day. Once my coffee is finished, I am in a pretty good mood and feel a twinge of inspiration to start my work day.

I then listen to a business related podcast as I wash my dishes, take my vitamins, get dressed, and anything else I need to do before I head into the office next door.

In the Office

Once in the office, the first thing I do is play an mp3 of the sounds of ocean waves and listen to that for about 90 seconds while I stand against the wall and do my neck exercises that will offset my work at the computer all day. The ocean waves mp3 help to clear my mind and is like a mini meditation before starting my work day.

I then open a word document called business-diary.docx and enter the day’s date and a paragraph or 2 about my thoughts. Sometimes I will be having a conversation in my head earlier that is good to document and write a letter to the person I have been thinking I need to communicate with. Other times I may have had a feeling in meditation that I want to write about or an inspiration for a new business idea, product, or blog post. I generally try and keep this short and not break into a full content session, although that sometimes happens.

Starting work

In a perfect world my next step would be to check my calendar, but I must admit, I forget this step more often than not.

Then Evernote, which I check religiously. I read “Getting Things Done” by David Allen a few years ago and that has been a complete game changer to my life. Now, everything I need to remember gets added to Evernote in a notebook called “inbox” and the following morning, I catalogue those into where they need to go, usually other Evernote notebooks. This gives me a good idea of what I need to do for my day.

And finally email. I have 7 email accounts I need to check and use Mozilla Thunderbird, which is not perfect, but does handle a lot of imap email accounts well. I am an inbox zero man and like to clear all unread email every morning. To begin with, I scroll through and mark as read anything I can tell by the subject line I can ignore. The ones I do need to reply to, I leave as un-read and the ones I need to act on, I create a note in Evernote.

In practice, I can get stuck reading a few of these emails either chasing shiny objects or worrying about things I should be worrying about later in the day (or even tomorrow). Usually I get back on track pretty quick and then I prioritize in Evernote what has to be done that day and have a break.

I have restricted the amount of time I spend on this process, starting when I listen to my ocean waves mp3, to one hour and it makes me feel in more control of my day. By 8am I have a pretty good idea what will be doing for the day and usually have a clear enough head to focus on what I have deemed the most important tasks for that day.

What is your morning routine?

What disciplines do you struggle with being consistent in your morning routine?